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Dan Devine

Mickael Pietrus: No. 20 in your program, No. 2 in Barkley's heart

Between lauding the Orlando Magic for racing to a 53-33 halftime lead in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Semifinals series and backhanding the Atlanta Hawks for bringing bricks to a BFG fight, Charles Barkley took a moment during TNT's halftime show to tell America that Magic reserve swingman Mickael Pietrus(notes) is his "second favorite player" in the NBA.

The legend-turned-analyst's high praise surprised some viewers; while Magic fans and some NBA heads are aware of the key role that Air France plays off the bench for Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy, Pietrus isn't exactly a household name. And given the high-class company the Chuckster keeps in his lucrative side gig as a pitchman — y'know, Dwyane Wade(notes), Yao Ming(notes), Dwight Howard(notes), Godzilla — the surprising love might have sounded random, moderately insane or even possibly insincere.

In fact, though, Barkley has taken a very public, staunchly pro-Pietrus stance several times of late. Before the start of the Magic's series against the Charlotte Bobcats, he told the Orlando Sentinel's Magic BasketBlog that he "loves Mickael Pietrus" as part of his take on the first-round matchup, and prior to the start of the playoffs, he gave OrlandoMagic.com beat writer John Denton more specifics on his appreciation:

"After Joakim Noah(notes), he's my second favorite player in the league," TNT analyst Charles Barkley said of Pietrus on Thursday night. "I never realized what a hell of a player he was until the [Eastern] Conference Finals last year. He's great defensively and he loves guarding LeBron [James] and those guys. He guards the best player every night. He's a terrific three-point shooter and maybe the most underrated player in the NBA."

That's some compliment coming from a Hall of Famer, and Pietrus is doing his part to live up to the billing this postseason. He's averaging 8.8 points in 19.8 minutes per game during the Magic's five-game playoff winning streak, shooting a blistering 52.2 percent from three-point range and posting a Player Efficiency Rating of 18.3, more than six points higher than his mark from the regular season. Factor in the rangy 6-foot-6-inch guard/forward's ability to effectively defend multiple positions and his willingness to play through a nagging ankle injury, and Barkley's admiration starts to make an awful lot of sense.

If you're looking for off-court reasons to support Pietrus, I can offer you a serious one -- his classy decision to honor the victims of last June's tragic Air France 447 crash -- and a joke one, taken from a recent Orlando Sentinel Q&A in which he was asked whether or not he liked the nickname "Planet Pietrus":

A: I like nicknames because they're fun. I like Planet Pietrus. Playoff Pietrus. Air France. I got [a] Denzel Washington nickname, too, sometimes.

Q: Denzel?

A: Because we look alike.

Q: What's your favorite Denzel movie?

A: "Training Day."

Q: Lot of violence in that one.

A: I like those movies because they make me tougher, like "Scarface."

To review: In addition to being a explosively athletic sharpshooter that doesn't mind coming off the bench and checking the opponent's best scorer every night, Mickael Pietrus also likes nicknames because they're fun and believes that watching violent movies makes him tougher.

It's now abundantly clear that what's weird isn't how much Charles Barkley loves this guy -- it's that all of us aren't spending most of our days saying how much we do.

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